professional development programs. And
they might be the first to be laid off and the
last to be hired.
As a result, they may be hit harder by the
recession. According to recent U.S. government data, unemployment rates for older I T
professionals have increased more quickly
than the rates for younger tech workers since
the recession began some three years ago
(see chart, page 24).
All of that can add up to a tough road for
older people in high tech.
Age bias is “something that no [employer]
talks about. But it’s a reality in tech that
if you’re 45 years of age and still writing C
code or Cobol code and making $150,000
a year, the likelihood is that you won’t be
employed very long,” says Vivek Wadhwa,
who currently holds academic positions at several universities,
including UC Berkeley, Duke and Harvard.
As Wadhwa’s observation indicates, “age bias” is a simplistic label
for a complicated set of factors that influence the job prospects for
senior tech employees. When considering workers over the age of
50, employers take the following factors into account:
While none of these generalizations is necessarily true for any
particular candidate, each is a stereotypical assumption about
older workers. What’s more, they are all logical and legal reasons
for an employer to fire, or not hire, someone.
“If you can hire someone fresh out of college for $60,000 who
is likely to know the latest technology, or you can hire someone
45 years old who’s making $140,000, who are you going to hire?
That’s the harsh reality, whether we like it or not,” says Wadhwa,
53, who started his career in IT as a programmer and then went
on to be an entrepreneur before entering academia.
Robert Ayr hears that message
loud and clear. At 57, he’s fully
and happily employed in IT as the
manager of production services at
Irving, Texas-based VHA Inc., a
national network of not-for-profit
healthcare organizations. He gives
himself credit for managing his
career well through turbulent times,
but at the same time, he can’t help
but look over his shoulder.
By his own estimate, since graduating college in 1977, Ayr has held nine
or 10 technology positions all over the
country — in California, Massachusetts, Texas and New York. “
Especially in the beginning, I was moving all
over the place — to expand my knowledge
base and to further my career,” he says.
As he got older, he moved less and
stayed in positions longer, but always took
care to keep his skills fresh, moving from
mainframes to VMS to his current spe-
cialty — servers. “I say every 10 years it’s
time to retool,” he explains. “I keep trying
to learn as much as I can, otherwise you
become a dinosaur.”
Even so, Ayr acknowledges that the
climate begins to change as the years of
experience add up. He recalls when he was
passed over for a job years ago in favor of a
candidate who had nearly the same creden-
tials as he did but was 20 years younger.
“I ran into the guy a couple months later
at a users’ group meeting, and I asked him
right up front what kind of money they were paying him. The
bottom line is, he was willing to work for less. That’s what happens.”
“I was always the youngest person wherever I went; now I’m one
of the oldest,” Ayr says. “You still picture yourself as the 30-year-old
hotshot, but the reality is you’re not that guy anymore.”
You still picture
yourself as the
but the reality is you’re
not that guy anymore.
ROBERT AYR, MANAGER OF
Older Workers by the Numbers
PRODUCTION SERVICES, VHA INC.
What do we know about the aging workforce in the U.S., and
about older tech workers in particular?
For starters, more older Americans are remaining in the
overall workforce. Last year, the percentage of people aged 55
and older in the workforce reached 40%, its highest level in 35
years, according to a study published in February 2011 by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. And that’s after the 2008-2009
recession, when many older workers lost their jobs.
But are older IT professionals remaining in the workforce?
Solid numbers are difficult to find; the data that is available is
sparse and sometimes inconsistent. Studies of older workers
rarely break down results by profession. Recruiting firms offer
data on hiring, and sometimes on salaries, by profession, but they
typically don’t break it down by age.
Other studies track unemployment, but not by age or profes-
sion — so it’s difficult to know how many older IT professionals
want work but can’t find it. The picture is further blurred when
companies outsource and offshore
IT jobs, or import workers through
the H-1B and other visa programs —
potentially displacing U.S. workers,
including older employees.
Add the fact that some I T profes-
sionals voluntarily bail out at a
certain age, either to pursue new
careers or to start their own business-
es, and you can see why researchers
find it difficult to quantify trends.
One set of data that does bring
several of these factors together
comes from the U. S. Bureau of Labor
Statistics (BLS). The agency released
numbers in early 2011 that show that
Continued on page 22
MORE OLDER AMERICANS
Labor participation rate
of workers 55 and older
SOURCE: EMPLOYEE BENEFI T RESEARCH INS TITU TE
ANALYSIS OF THE U.S. CENSUS BUREAU’S DATA ON